Finding your way around the information on Magic cards.

Anatomy of a Magic Card

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Magic Academy is a column designed to help newer players get up to speed by teaching them more about the game and showing the resources available on the web for learning more. The column is written in linear fashion, like a book, so each lesson builds on material learned in previous articles. So, if you're new to the column, you can either start at the beginning or just check the articles so far to see where you'd like to begin. To see the column's table of contents or learn more, just go to the Magic Academy Welcome Page.

This column is written for players that can at least muddle their way through a game of Magic. If you're completely new to the game and don't know how to play at all, we recommend starting with playmagic.com and then returning to Magic Academy. Once you know the basics of getting through a game we'll take it from there!

Hello again, friends. Last week’s article was a taste for the sorts of topics we will be covering in the coming weeks and months. This week, however, we are going to take a step back and give you an in-depth look at all of the information available to you on a Magic card. All of the info packed onto that petite piece of cardboard can be a little overwhelming at first, especially for some of the more complicated cards out there, but a little explanation about the important parts should ease your entry into the game.

Name

We'll start our cardboard journey in the top left. Perhaps the most important part of any card is the name. These simple words are meant to evoke plenty of imagery in your mind beyond the card art, and perhaps give you a clue as to what the card does. For this reason, the creative team on R&D tends to avoid calling cards "Bob the Giant," choosing the more evocative Hammerfist Giant or Bloodfire Colossus instead. Card names are important to remember because certain spells (like Cranial Extraction or Meddling Mage) actually need you to name something in order to play them. They are also important to remember because your friends will give you strange looks if you try to tell them you cast "the thingy on his whatsamajig, but he countered it with a canoodle" and that's why you lost.

Mana Cost

At the right of the top line is what we call the mana cost. This is a set of numbers and symbols used to represent what types of mana you need to generate in order to cast spells. Let's look at that Bloodfire Colossus again.

In order to cast this beastie, you need to generate two red mana plus six generic mana. When it comes to "generic mana" that means you can use mana of any color for that part.

With that in mind, this is a good place to introduce the idea of converted mana cost or CMC. Converted mana cost is simply the sum total of all the mana a card costs, regardless of what kind of mana we're talking about. In order to figure out the CMC of the Colossus, you would take 2 red and add it to the 6 generic for a total of 8. Just add all the mana needed and get a total. Simple, no?

When discussing mana in print, the convention is to use letters in order to reflect which symbols we are talking about when we aren't able to just use the symbols. I have included a brief translation key below for those of you who are just getting involved in the community.

W = White = W (Comes from Plains basic land)
U = Blue = U = (Comes from Island basic land)
B = Black = B = (Comes from Swamp basic land)
R = Red = R = (Comes from Mountain basic land)
G = Green - G = (Comes from Forest basic land)

For newer readers, having "U" mean blue mana takes a little getting used to. Historically, this came about because Wizards R&D would use B for black and L for land, so U became the shorthand for blue and it's been that way ever since.

Lastly, note that "mana cost" was originally called "casting cost" up until the release of the Sixth Edition core set, which brought a number of important rules and terminology changes. So, particularly with more experienced players, you may hear or read the term casting cost instead but now you'll know they just mean mana cost.

Type Line

This area shows you what kind of card you're dealing with. There are six basic types of cards: lands, creatures, enchantments, artifacts, instants, and sorceries. This line can also contain more specific information. If we're talking about a creature card, this is where you'll find out what kind of creature you're dealing with (Goblin, Dragon, etc), for example.

This line gets more advanced than we're going to deal with for now, but the good news is that for the level you're at right now, in most cases the information you need is right here on the card as you work your way through a game of Magic. If you have a card that says all your goblins get a bonus, and the card in question says it's a goblin on the type line, you know you're good to go. (As we get more involved with the rules we'll revisit this line and talk about things like subtypes and super types and other issues.)

Expansion Symbol

On the right of the type line is the expansion symbol, which is a piece of information that tells you what set this particular card was printed in. It also tells you the rarity of the card. Gold stands for rare, silver for uncommon, and a black expansion symbol means it's a common card.

So, based on that you know our Colossus friend here comes from the Ninth Edition core set (the symbol), and that he's a rare card (the gold color).More information about cards can be found in our giant-yet-easily-searchable card database Gatherer. To learn more about Magic's various sets, try clicking on the word "Products" from the navigation bar on the right of the page. That takes you to the Magic Products page, which lists all the sets ever printed, in order, including their name and expansion symbol. Click on any of the sets from there and you'll get all kinds of detailed information about that specific set. This is actually one of the highest trafficked areas on the site after the articles, so it's a great section to know about as you learn more about the game.

Finally, some bonus info if you're feeling like picking up some extra credit on this area: as long-time players already know, colored expansion symbols weren't always used. For anything earlier than the Exodus expansion set, all expansion symbols are black regardless of rarity. (Also, prior to Sixth Edition, core sets didn't have any expansion symbol at all.)

Text Box

  • Abilities
    The large box underneath the picture is the box that contains the important information about what the card actually does. Some cards (mostly creatures) don't have any information at all in this area (not counting italics text, which we'll get to in a moment), which means they don't have any special abilities. These kinds of cards are often referred to as "vanilla".

    However, most spells in Magic have important information about what the card actually does in the text box. Take our friend Anaba Shaman.

    His ability is that, once he is in play for a turn and gets past his summoning sickness, he can tap to deal one damage to target creature or player. ("Tapping" is the act of turning the card sideways, and is denoted by that curved arrow symbol.) To do so, you'll need to spend a red mana. Simple, cool, and useful. Many creatures do considerably more complicated things, while most types of card are almost completely defined by their ability text. Need more examples? All right, click on Shock, Wrath of God, Icy Manipulator, Curiosity, and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree for an example of each type of Magic card and its ability text.

  • Flavor Text
    On most cards, you will see a section of italicized text below the ability text that tells a small story or gives you a quote that might reference the card. This is what we call flavor text. Flavor text is a chance to fill you in on the back-story of the game by telling you a little snippet or story about the card and how it fits into the world of Magic.

    Or, maybe it's a chance to slip in some humor.

    Flavor text doesn't have an in-game impact and is occasionally left off entirely when ability text takes up too much space, but it's another element that adds depth to the game of Magic. The Creative Team in R&D works hard to create a meaningful world that goes beyond just how the cards play, and there's even a category of player that loves Magic cards more for their art and flavor than what they actually do in the game. To learn more about the flavor side of Magic, try Matt Cavotta's column Taste the Magic, where you'll get an exclusive weekly look into the fruits of Magic's Creative Team and the worlds they build for these cards to live in.

Artist Info

Just below the text box on the left hand side is the name of the artist who did the art on the card. Magic's art has always been one of its most striking features and has only gotten better since the game started back in 1993. Given the incredible level it's at now, Magic sports some of the coolest fantasy images available anywhere.

Collector's Number

In very tiny text just above the bottom border of the card, you will typically see a trademark symbol plus some dates, the words Wizards of the Coast, and then some more numbers and or letters. Most of that stuff is just copyright info, but the information to the right of that line is what is known as the collector number, and it tells you where the card falls in the set, should you wish to organize your collection in that fashion. Much to my wife's chagrin, I tend to organize my collection via the "tossing the cards in whatever box happens to be nearby" method, which is not recommended.

Power/Toughness

This is the section of a card that exists only for creature spells and gives you the general size of the creature in question. The numbers in question are found in the bottom right corner of the card, like the 13/13 listed on our friend to the right there. The number on the left is the power, used to describe the offensive abilities of the creature in combat. The higher the number on the left, the greater the facesmashery the creature can inflict on an unwitting and often unwilling opponent.

The number on the right is the toughness of the creature. Toughness is how much damage a creature can take before it goes down for the count. A toughness of one is about the same as Glass Joe's chin from Punch Out, while a toughness of six is pretty much like Rocky, though toughness can actually soar into the stratosphere. In fact, the biggest actual creature card ever printed for tournament play so far is Krosan Cloudscraper, an avalanche of boom boom that clocks in at 13/13.

As I write this, the cards of Coldsnap have recently been revealed, which includes a card that can create a token that weighs in at an astounding 20/20, making it bigger than George Foreman and all of his kids combined. Wizards actually printed a special card that could be used for the token, which is being given away for free this weekend at the Coldsnap release events.

Card Border

While every card back is uniform, the card border on the front changes depending on what set the card is from. The slightly simplified story is that cards in the Core Set (Unlimited through 9th Edition) all have white borders, while cards from one of Magic's many expansion sets will be black bordered. (Magic also has some cards with gold borders, but we will get to that special case and other border issues in a future article.)

Magic also has two special sets that were printed which are not tournament legal. Often referred to as the "un" sets, Unglued and Unhinged are sets of cards released for casual players, with an emphasis on humor. Cards from both Unglued and Unhinged have silver borders and are not allowed in tournament play.

Deconstruction

I've used relatively simple examples thus far, but let's take the plunge and show you a very cool card with a lot of information about it and deconstruct what we've learned today. Ready?

Check that guy out. Alright, we know the name goes in the top left, and thus we know this card is called Troll Ascetic. The top right shows his casting cost, which is 1GG, meaning it takes two green mana and one generic to put him into play. He's also what we would call a "three-mana creature" because his converted mana cost is... you guessed it, three.

Looking on the type line, we can see that he's a creature, and his specific creature type is "Troll Shaman". He's also a rare out of Mirrodin (though fans recently voted him into Tenth Edition, so you'll be seeing him around for a while).

Next comes the ability text, which tells you the Troll has two important characteristics. First of all, he can't be the target of spells and abilities your opponents control, meaning he's pretty tough for your opponent to deal with. Most removal spells are targeted, but should your opponent wish to target Mr. Troll, he just holds up his hand and shouts, "No sir!" You can feel free to do this when casting him, but I recommend using it sparingly since it can get annoying over time.

The other important ability the Troll has is that he can regenerate, provided you pay 1G each time. What this means is that, should the Troll take lethal damage from something (say from combat, or your opponent casting Pyroclasm), the Troll will stay alive as long as you pump two mana into him. This makes the Troll a giant pain for opponents to handle, since he's practically unkillable. You know Jason from the Friday the 13th movies? Well Troll Ascetic is like him. Except greener. There's some serious voodoo going on here, because this shaman just won't die.

On the next line you get the italicized flavor text, which tells us: It's no coincidence that the oldest trolls are also the angriest. I think my dad was the first person to inform me of such wisdom, though I think he might have been making a comment about his third wife at the time.

On the bottom left, you can see the inestimable Puddnhead has done the art for the Troll (art which would generally be classified as awesome by most players), and on the bottom right, you get the overall fattitude of the Troll, who weighs in at 3/2. (Slang alert: a creature's size is often referred to in terms of how "fat" that creature is!) This is a bit too small to be a true fattie (4/4 or better is required to shop at the Big and Tall store), but considering the Troll's defensive capabilities coupled with the fact that he still has three power for three mana, he's a mighty fine creature.

Last and least, you get the itty-bitty text just above the border which says "135/306" meaning the Troll is card number 135 out of the 306 cards in Mirrodin.

That's all the time I have for this week, kiddies, but join me next time when I will try to give some sage advice about building your very first Constructed deck.

Additional Reading:

First, I will introduce you to a neophyte's best friend: The Saturday School and Ask the Judge archives. Both of these columns have extensive - nay massive - catalogs of columns where they explain and answer specific questions about the rules. Thankfully, you are not required to read every single edition if you want to keep up with things, since they also have searchable rules databases, so you can just input the card you have a question about and expect the computer to do all the hard work of searching for and spitting out the answers.

Additionally, for those looking to find rules in a fully interactive environment, let me suggest you check out both the Rules FAQ section and the Rules Q&A section of our forums. They are stocked to the gills with useful information and seem to have more than a few people willing to help out players in need. Lastly, there's an entire section on rules in magicthegatering.com's Magic Rules Center, which includes links to pretty much any rules resource you could imagine and then some.

If you find yourself with additional time on your hands and would like a chance to use some of what you learned today, I recommend Josh Bennett's excellent article "Introducing the Pit Fighter Legends" where he not only coins the term "facesmashery", but where he also puts some of the best writing chops in Magic on display for all to see.

You can also check out any of the card previews from our wonderful staff of experts to see how they convert all the information you see on the card into an analysis of how those cards will impact the game itself. Each time a new set approaches, the writers of magicthegathering.com get to do a couple weeks of previews, showing off the new cards before you can see them anywhere else. I think you'll find that the ways the preview articles analyze the new cards follows a lot of what you learned today. If such things interest you, might I recommend starting here, here, here, here, and here?

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